Print edition : June 01, 2012

Jatav victims of an attack by some members of the Gujjar community in their village on March 14.-PICTURES: SANDEEP SAXENA

Jatav residents of Ramgarh in U.P. resist attempts by members of a powerful community to grab their land by violent means.

IN what could be considered one of the worst incidents of vendetta against Dalits in the National Capital Region (NCR), members of the Dalit Jatav community were beaten up brutally by some members of the dominant Gujjar community in Ramgarh village in the Greater Noida area of Uttar Pradesh on March 14. The assailants, backed by the gram pradhan who belongs to the same caste, went to the Dalit colony on the margins of the village armed with sticks, countrymade pistols and axes, and beat up its residents in broad daylight, severely injuring many of them. During the rampage, which lasted more than three hours, the Gujjars did not spare even women and children. According to the Jatavs, the police did not arrive in time despite several phone calls to them.

The incident has only strengthened an ongoing struggle by the Jatavs in the village for the right to live peacefully and with dignity. The Jatavs have once again organised themselves to fight the age-old oppression, while the Gujjars are waiting for an opportune moment to strike again. Nearly two months after the incident, there is an eerie calm in the village as the various caste groups have polarised.

The main reason for the attack is 4.75 bighas (one bigha equals 0.25 hectare) of panchayat land allocated to the 60 Jatav families by the State government. The land has been allegedly occupied by the gram pradhan, Kuldeep Bhati.

The Constitution mandates the allocation of a fixed share of panchayat land in every village to Dalit families so that they can build houses or cattle sheds on them. The government had even issued pattas (title deeds) for the land in 1982. But the Gujjars, who are financially stronger, built a seven-foot-high wall around the land last December, restricting the movement of the Jatavs into their own land.

DALIT ASSERTION

This led to a conflict in the village. The March 14 incident was the culmination of the violence perpetrated systematically against the Jatavs, who for the first time showed tremendous courage in resisting the land encroachment. The resistance surprised the Gujjars, who had not anticipated any form of protest by the traditionally exploited Jatavs. Soon after the encroachment, the Jatavs approached the gram pradhan and warned that if the compound wall was not demolished they would register a complaint with the authorities in Dadri tehsil, under which Ramgarh comes, in Gautam Buddha Nagar district.

Brahma Jatav, a 25-year-old leader of the Jatav community, took the lead in asserting the community's right after the Gujjars did not pay heed to the warning. He gave a written complaint about the encroachment to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate on January 24. The Gujjars felt offended and took on the Jatavs, subjecting them to abuses and threats. On February 1, when a Gujjar leader beat up a Jatav for refusing to carry the carcass of a buffalo calf on his shoulders, Brahma filed a first information report at the local police station. After a few stray incidents of individual abuses, the Gujjars accosted Brahma when he was proceeding to attend a family function in a neighbouring village.

Four Gujjar boys shot at me with a countrymade pistol. A friend came and rescued me and I fled, Brahma said. This was on March 14. The same afternoon, the Gujjars organised themselves and went on the rampage.

When this correspondent visited Ramgarh, he saw one in three Jatav residents injured: some of them had their arms or legs broken or had suffered minor skull injuries. Shakuntala Devi, a 60-year-old woman, said: They dragged me out of my house and hit me on my stomach and arms with iron rods. Doctors have implanted a steel rod to support her left limb. A 30-year-old construction worker was attacked with axes when he was returning home. He was rushed to a local hospital with a broken skull and fractured leg. Although he has been discharged from the hospital, he is bedridden and hardly speaks. He may take almost a year to recover.

Women, who are easy targets in every act of violence and suppression, gave an account of the brutal treatment meted out to them that day. Even today the Jatav women suffer verbal abuse with sexual connotations every day. With safety in view, the Jatavs move around in groups. After the March 14 incident, the administration deployed a police contingent in the village to prevent further violence. However, the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist-Liberation) party members, who visited the place, have mentioned in their fact-finding report that the police are monitoring the Jatavs more closely than they are the Gujjars. The claim may not be off the mark because the police have failed to make any arrests so far. A few people whom the Jatavs had named in their complaint have obtained anticipatory bail. The report also states that the police charged the accused under minor sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and as a result, they got bail immediately.

A district official told Frontline on condition of anonymity that the Gujjars, who constitute not more than 20 families, were politically powerful and that his department had been trying to keep a check on their activities. This is not the first case of encroachment by the Gujjars in Ramgarh. The shops that they own along the village street are constructed on panchayat lands. We have been planning to take some action in this regard too, he said. The gram pradhan refused to talk to Frontline despite repeated requests.

REAL ESTATE

Ramgarh, like many other villages of western Uttar Pradesh, is surrounded by lush agricultural fields and irrigation canals. Scores of cattle sheds managed by the villagers mark its territory. Like most villages in the vicinity, it is shaped by innumerable asymmetrical bylanes running through a number of big and small semi-plastered houses. However, what makes the village crucial in terms of its location is its proximity to Greater Noida, which has become one of the biggest destinations in the NCR for real estate businesses. One may recall that last year farmers of the villages around Greater Noida had organised themselves to protest against the indiscriminate land acquisition for the Yamuna Expressway and a hi-tech city that was proposed along the highway. But Ramgarh, where farmers have already sold most of their lands, is witnessing an internal conflict that might contribute another dimension to the understanding of the problems fuelled by land acquisitions across the country.

Around Ramgarh, a private construction company has acquired most of the lands to build a mega city consisting of housing societies, shopping malls, private schools and hospitals and large sports facilities. It has named the proposed town Sushant Megapolis. Like in most other western Uttar Pradesh villages, agricultural lands in Ramgarh are owned by Jats. Most of the Jats of the village have already sold their land to the company. The other dominant caste, Gujjar, is a backward community, but the Gujjars have traditionally been powerful in the region owing to their money and muscle power. Their wealth comes primarily from moneylending.

As is the case with most of rural India, the traditional moneylenders charge exorbitant rates of interest. Dalits, the most vulnerable community in Ramgarh, have been historically exploited through this process and they continue to be caught in a debt trap. This is also the reason that the land allotted to them is their only property. Most of the Jatavs are landless and work as farmhands in the fields of the Jats. As the Jats have sold their lands, the Jatavs have been forced to take up menial jobs in Delhi or Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh.

The conflict over land is inevitable in the context of the booming real estate business in the NCR. The mad rush to buy land has made land prices go up sharply. The 4.75 bighas of encroached land can fetch at least Rs.5 crore at the current market value.

In most of the land acquisition cases in India, construction companies operate through middlemen from the village from where they intend to acquire land. Middlemen generally try to land a deal at the minimum possible price for a fixed commission. They first spread rumours that the government plans to acquire all available lands for a particular project, and this would make a farmer hastily sell his land at a low price.

LARGE-SCALE LAND acquisition by big construction companies has led to a severe land crunch in Ramgarh, which is in the National Capital Region. In the backdrop, high-rise buildings under construction.-

If this trick does not work, the middlemen would employ musclemen to threaten the farmers. In this, the middlemen are helped by the gram pradhan, the patwari (village's official clerk) and other village officials, often leading to a complicated builder-official-middleman nexus. In Ramgarh, it is alleged that some members of the Gujjar community have become the middlemen for construction companies.

The Bhatta-Parsaul or Tappal struggles over land acquisition last year saw organised resistance from the landowning Jats, but Ramgarh did not see much protest as the farmers there were offered better prices because of the village's proximity to Delhi. The Jats were heard by the media and politicians as the community is socially and politically powerful. However, the Ramgarh case indicates that a severe land crunch in the region has assumed multiple dimensions and has become one of the primary reasons for the exploitation of Dalits. The land crunch has pitted the Gujjars and the Jatavs against each other. However, despite an exploitative relationship between the two communities, organised violence, such as the one witnessed in March, was unheard of.

The Jatavs complained that the Gujjars were selling part of their land to outsiders who they suspect would eventually sell the land to builders. The power to convert the panchayat land into freehold land rests with the gram pradhan, that is, if he gets the approval of the Dalits. Brahma Jatav told Frontline that the pradhan had been trying to get their signatures so that the land could become freehold and he could sell it.

In western Uttar Pradesh, Dalits are forced to live on the margins of villages. Ramgarh is no exception. In fact, the village has a history of forcible eviction of members of the Valmiki community (extremely backward Dalits who work mostly as manual scavengers in northern India) from their lands, which made them leave the village. However, after the March 14 incident, the Jatavs organised a convention for the first time to pledge that they would continue to fight against such injustices. The Jatavs are planning to appeal to all the high offices until they get their lands back.

One of the biggest results of such rapid urbanisation driven by private companies is the escalation of conflicts in rural India, among communities and with external forces. These conflicts can take a vicious form in villages already plagued by an exploitative caste system, as in Ramgarh. The incidents in Ramgarh, which is less than 40 kilometres from New Delhi, prove that urbanisation alone cannot be the solution to end the power-driven caste system, as some Dalit activists have been proposing. It is also interesting to note that the Ramgarh violence occurred around the same time as the State Assembly elections.

SOME DALIT WOMEN who were injured in the attack.-

The incident was projected in the regional dailies as the Samajwadi Party's (which had just come to power) retaliation against Bahujan Samaj Party workers. However, the sequence of events proves that the violence had its roots in the age-old exploitation of Dalits, who have undoubtedly become assertive.

A poem by the revolutionary Hindi poet Gorakh Pandey and eloquently narrated by Kavita Krishnan of the CPI(ML) at the Jatav convention sums up the resistance in Ramgarh: Hazaar saal purana hai unka gussa/Hazaar saal purani hai unki nafrat/Main toh unke bikhrey hue shabdon ko/ Tukh aur Laya ke saath lauta raha hoon/Tumhe darr hai ki aag bhadka raha hoon. (Their anger is a thousand years old/ Their hatred is a thousand years old/ I am just returning their scattered words/With rhyme and reason/And you fear that I am inciting rage.)

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